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Strange but true: Long-dormant Peacock still leading new season among advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds

Revolution and The Voice have punched up the Peacock's 18-to-49 ratings through first four weeks of new season. NBC photos

NBC likely won't make it all the way to the finish line as the 2012-13 TV season's most-watched network among advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds.

For now, though, the Peacock is entitled to crow about being No. 1 in this key demographic through the first four weeks of the season. Not only that, it's won all four of them on the strength of its usual ratings giant, Sunday Night Football, and with big assists from The Voice and Revolution.

CBS remains the runaway winner in total viewers. And with the Super Bowl on its plate this season, it will rack up huge 18-to-49 numbers for the Feb. 3rd game in New Orleans. Meanwhile, the NFL will leave NBC in January. And a planned replacement lineup of Dateline, Fashion Star, The Celebrity Apprentice and the new drama Do No Harm will be fortunate to do even half as well as Sunday Night Football.

Fox also has a diminished but still potent American Idol in reserve. And an elongated World Series between the Detroit Tigers and San Francisco Giants would improve the network's so far dismal fall standing in both ratings measurements.

But NBC at least is finally back in the game among viewers that most advertisers still crave above all others. Football ratings are better than ever on Sunday. And the decision to air two cycles of The Voice, rather than starting it in midseason, has paid major dividends on Monday nights.

Last fall, NBC went into battle on Mondays with two big losers, The Sing-Off and The Playboy Club. This time around, two-hour performance editions of The Voice are clubbing ABC's Dancing with the Stars among 18-to-49-year-olds before the new serial drama Revolution holds steady against ABC's still potent Castle.

Revolution remains the most-watched new series of the season among 18-to-49-year-olds, although NBC could face the same problems Heroes had if a hiatus or reruns slow its momentum.

NBC also is scoring with Tuesday night's results editions of The Voice, which precede the new sitcoms Go On and The New Normal. Both of these freshman have received full-season pickups and are performing solidly with 18-to-49-year-olds.

The second-year series Grimm is hardly a juggernaut, but still ranks as Friday's No. 1 scripted series in the 18-to-49 measurement.

All of this adds up to NBC's best showing among 18-to-49-year-olds since the first four weeks of the 2007-08 TV season. And it's the only Big Four broadcast network to register a year-to-year improvement in this demographic while ABC, CBS and Fox so far are showing double-digit decreases.

The Peacock's resurgence, for the time being at least, helps to remove the bitter taste of numerous prime-time failures in recent seasons, none bigger than the five-nights-a-week Jay Leno Show in fall 2009. NBC also has tried and failed miserably with the likes of Knight Rider, Bionic Woman, Kath & Kim, Journeyman, Lipstick Jungle, The Event, Chase, Undercovers, Outsourced and Outlaw. Critically praised long-distance runners such as Friday Night Lights and Chuck were never able to deliver sizable ratings in any measurement.

It only takes a few hit shows, however, to turn a network's fortunes around. And The Voice, as does Fox's Idol, provides the added bonuses of filling several hours of prime-time on multiple nights.

Here are the four-week, season-to-date standings so far in both 18-to-49-year-olds and total viewers:

NBC -- 3.9 million
CBS -- 3.4 million
ABC/Fox -- 3.0 million

Total Viewers
CBS -- 11.3 million
ABC -- 8.8 million
NBC -- 8.4 million
Fox -- 6.5 million

Commie pinko update -- from righteous Twitter debate analysts who just know I'm one of those

Did ya hear the one about . . . ? Mitt Romney & Barack Obama are all smiles after their final debate. Not so the Twitter-verse Photo: Ed Bark

The Twitter-verse is basically a rowdy, untamed frontier, never more so than on nights with highly charged political events.

On Monday, my live tweets for the most part said that President Obama decisively whipped Mitt Romney on both substance and style during their closing debate on foreign policy. I was equally emphatic during the first two debates, saying that Romney had badly beaten Obama in their first encounter and that any edge Joe Biden might have had over Paul Ryan was trumped by his off-putting demeanor.

In all instances, I didn't look at other tweets to "validate" my thoughts. I put them out there, and after each debate checked to see what the general response had been.

Here's the difference, though. The knee-jerk charges of left-leaning liberal bias came out in force during the course of Debate 4. I was suddenly a stooge for Obama in the view of tweeters who were nowhere to be found during the first two debates.

This pisses me off. I've approached each debate with a completely open mind, calling them as I see them as both television performances and substantive discussions. The first two, in my view, tilted in favor of the Republicans. Obama narrowly won the second presidential debate, but not nearly to the degree that Romney had thumped him in Debate 1. And I thought Obama clearly dominated on Monday night.

The beauty of Twitter, though, is that you can call people out by name. They can't hide behind anonymity in website "Comments" sections (which recently were removed from unclebarky.com after too much name-calling and attacking by cretins who peed from the bushes without putting their names to their petty observations). In the end they ruined it for the majority.

So I'm going to post the names and tweets of those who resorted to the tired old "lefty" rhetoric. And then I'm going to rebut them. Disagreeing is fine. No problem at all with that. But you're gonna get hammered in turn when the best you can do is a clumsy left-footed liberal bias two-step.

Here's some early wisdom from Clay Jones (unheard from in the first two debates): "Your colors are showing, Ed. Obama is the one who's been wrong and we're all paying for it."

And what colors would those be, Clay? Apparently you didn't bother to read this pre-debate tweet from yours truly: "Chris Matthews again in process of belittling & talking right over woman who doesn't agree with him chapter & verse on Romney." Or this one from Debate 1 between Obama and Romney: "Michelle's gonna sit down with Barack tonight and say, 'Honey, I know it's our anniversary, but we won't celebrate. That man beat you bad."

Here's a pearl from Carissa Menefee (unheard from in the first two debates): "You mock media bias, but your own tweets seem biased to me."

Did they seem biased to you during the first two debates? Why wasn't I a right-wing nut on those occasions?

John Beakley (also unheard from in Debates 1 and 2) had a thought: "Stick to reviewing tv shows with fluff, you are out of your league on big boy politics."

Right. Like I haven't heard that one before. Well, John, I was a political reporter in Madison, Wisconsin before coming to D-FW. Covered presidential campaigns and a governor's race. And during my time at The Dallas Morning News, I wrote extensively about the media coverage in presidential campaigns and at 10 national political conventions.

I can see where you're a big leaguer, though, John. After all, your Twitter bio describes you as "Diehard Longhorn, and all Dallas sports teams." John later added this verbatim genius tweet: "well guess what Lfty, Romney is getting his points in now." Wow, way to put me in my place, Einstein.

Cliff Fiske offered this zinger: "Your left is showing. No rooting in press box." Cliff later conceded that he "didn't read along (during) first two debates." Well, of course you didn't, Cliff. Par for the course.

Anthony Spencer saw bias where no one else did -- with moderator Bob Schieffer. His tweet: "Can't you see how the LEFT moderator is setting him (Obama) up? Jesus!!!!!!"

Hey, Anthony, let me refer you to the country's foremost prosecutor of "liberal media bias," Brent Bozell. On Monday night, the conservative founder and president of the Media Research Center tweeted, "It's important for conservatives to acknowledge this: Whatever his biases, and he has biases, Schieffer didn't show them tonight. Well done."

By the way, Bozell also thought that Romney got his clocked cleaned by Obama, but hoped no one was watching. His final tweet of the night: "Bad news for Romney: poor performance, and lack of vision. Good news for Romney: No one knows; America had been put to sleep."

Boy, that Bozell. What a lefty!

Take it from Rick Percle, though. "Your preference is showing."


HBO's The Girl puts a big hitch in the Hitchcock legend

Beauty and the beast redux? Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as leading lady Tippi Hedren in The Girl. HBO photo

What's it all about, Alfred?

But dead men tell no tales, and the "Master of Suspense" has been in the grave for 32 years. That leaves Alfred Hitchcock at the mercy of The Girl, a provocative HBO film drawn from his allegedly obsessive and abusive relationship with leading lady Tippi Hedren, who's still among the living at age 82. The one hour, 35-minute film premieres Saturday, Oct. 20th at 8 p.m. (central).

Starring Toby Jones and Sienna Miller as the two principals, The Girl is in part drawn from Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto's 2008 Spellbound By Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies. In its pages, Hedren made her first public accusations that the man who discovered her also wanted to possess her sexually. And if she didn't succumb, he'd short-sheet her career.

The film begins with Hitchcock and his collaborative, plain-faced wife, Alma (Imelda Staunton) glimpsing Hedren in a TV commercial. He's basking in acclaim for Psycho but sees his next film, The Birds, as a perfect vehicle for a largely unknown, untrained blonde. In the pecking order of this 1963 horror-fest, they'd be the real stars and Hedren their main point of attack.

"Hitch," as he prefers women to call him, is soon plying a bowled-over Hedren with expensive wine, dry martinis and witty repartee, all with Alma's approval. She knew the drill. Hitchcock was ever in search of blonde goddesses for his films, and Hedren had the added advantage of being not only beautiful but malleable. Or so it seemed to him.

The Girl has a terrific scene in a restaurant where Alfred and Alma inform her that she's been chosen to star in what he calls "my most ambitious movie ever." Both Hedren and Alma weep with joy. "I'll make you so proud of me," she says. "I'll be putty in your hands."

But during a subsequent rainy day in which filming's on hold, Hitchcock sees Hedren engaged in happy conversation with The Birds' assistant director, Jim Brown (Carl Beukes). It arouses both his jealousy and his appetite for her. And so he pounces, kissing her roughly in the back seat of his chauffeured car until she fights him off.

(HBO publicity materials say that Brown corroborated Hedren's version of events during an interview shortly before his death with The Girl's screenwriter, Gwyneth Hughes. The film is directed by Julian Jarrold, whose credits also include Becoming Jane and Brideshead Revisited.)

Jones, who also portrayed Truman Capote in the 2006 feature film Infamous, looks very much the part of Hitchcock with a little prosthetic assistance. At base level, the famed film director comes off as a sexual predator with a companion fondness for ribald limericks. But Jones also brings out the desperately lonely, self-loathing side of him. And in his own twisted way, he also remains devoted to Alma.

Miller (Stardust, Alfie) convincingly plays Hedren as an ambitious but moralistic beauty. At the red carpet premiere of The Birds, she basks in the full Hollywood treatment with Hitchcock on her arm.

"So you see, it was worth it. The pain and the fear and the loneliness," he tells her. Besides his advances, the indignities included being pecked by real-life birds in take after take after take while Hitchcock appears to be enjoying himself in his director's chair.

They went on to make Marnie together after Grace Kelly became unavailable. That film included a rape scene at the hands of Sean Connery, who is seen only briefly from the back and is played by an unbilled actor. The Girl's epilogue, as does Spotto's book, hail Marnie as the sagging Hitchcock's last "masterpiece." He made just four more films, the last Family Plot in 1976.

Hedren, mother of actress Melanie Griffith (who's portrayed as a little girl in the film), was held to her seven-year contract by Hitchcock after refusing to submit sexually to him however and whenever he wanted. She had few credits of any import after Marnie and in 1994 succumbed to the made-for-TV movie The Birds II: Land's End.

The Girl is basically a two-year snapshot in the lives and times of an acknowledged genius director and the blonde beauty who came to him out of the blue. It diminishes him and elevates her. Whether that's what he deserves is debatable. But real truths invariably come out, and this is a film that convincingly rings with them. The chills and horrors that Hitchcock delightedly visited upon audiences unfortunately did not stop there.


HGTV's Home Strange Home is a sweet little series

Dallasite Carlos Cardoza and host Chuck Nice establish a decor rapport on premiere episode of Home Strange Home. HGTV photo

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 19th at 8 p.m. (central) on HGTV
Hosted by: Chuck Nice
Produced by: Andy Streitfeld, Kim Clemons

Live and let live on HGTV's Home Strange Home, where retired neurosurgeon Lonnie Hammargren of Las Vegas plans to remain on site with his remains in a replica of an Egyptian tomb.

"I will be buried here," he says. "Hopefully in pickled vodka because I sure don't like the taste of Formaldehyde."

After launching as a special in November 2011, HSH returns to HGTV Friday (Oct. 19th at 8 p.m. central) as an eight-episode weekly series produced by Dallas-based AMS Pictures. It seems like a why-didn't-I-think-of-that? can't miss idea. And you really shouldn't miss Lonnie's abode or the seven other eclectic residences showcased in the opening hour.

The host is veteran standup comic Chuck Nice, who makes in-person visits to three of the homes while narrating tours of the others. Nice perhaps could take it down just a notch, although his kid-in-a-candy-store exuberance for the most part is an overall plus. Some of the segments without him could use him.

The lead-off home owner is architect Eugene Tssui of Berkeley, Calif., whose "Fish House" is designed to withstand any heavy-duty earthquakes. Tssui says he can't wait for one to hit so he can "see how this house behaves." It helps to have a few screws loose.

Tssui, who's also a champion senior Olympics gymnast and boxer, greets Nice in a cape cloaking an "air-conditioned" yellow outfit.

"Now the only air-conditioning I have is a fly, which is often in the 'down' position unfortunately," Nice cracks. Good one. Been there.

Nice also drops in on Carlos Cardoza of Dallas, whose home is entirely furnished in '50s and '60s decor. This includes a round bed, purple shag carpeting, a Bob's Big Boy statue out by the pool and meticulously arranged shelves of sweaters labeled with celebrity names of yore such as Clark Gable and Sammy Davis, Jr. Nice marvels at the "playful quality" of the place.

It would have been nice if Nice had journeyed to Oklahoma City for a tour of Wayne Coyne's abode. Instead he narrates from afar while the decidedly offbeat, but nonetheless down home lead singer of The Flaming Lips conducts a brisk tour. The big laughing skull mosaic on the master bedroom floor is quite a sight.

Two other Texas locales -- Italy and Amarillo -- also have homes in play Friday night. But Nice's third hands-on visit is to Portland, Oregon, where Roy Wilkinson's out-of-the-way dwelling is thoroughly and beautifully in harmony with the surrounding nature.

Most of these places are spacious and heavily decorated. The extreme exception is Jay Shafer's residence in Sonoma County. It's a claustrophobic 88 square feet, with the owner saying he's a minimalist by design. You probably wouldn't want to visit, though. Actually you couldn't. There really isn't room.

Home Strange Home is fun, sometimes instructive and well-suited for Friday nights. Many a TV viewer isn't in the mood for heavy-lifting after another work week is in the books. This series doesn't require any of that. It's one big "Welcome" mat. And if you don't like one home, there's always another one coming right up.


Cinemax's Hunted offers quantum espionage

Melissa George gives as good as she gets in Hunted. Cinemax photo

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 19th at 9 p.m. (central) on Cinemax
Starring: Melissa George, Adam Rayner, Stephen Dillane, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Stephen Campbell Moore, Morven Christie, Lex Shrapnel, Patrick Malahide
Produced by: Frank Spotnitz

Tough as Nikita and arguably more traumatized, operative Sam Hunter comes to Cinemax with the tagline "Never Make An Agent The Enemy."

She's the badly wronged woman driving the action in Hunted, an eight-episode espionage yarn presented in Cold War-ish washed-out colors. Cinemax sent the entire series in the mail. But even super-dutiful TV critics might be hard-pressed to find that much time amid all the other reviews begging to be written. Last I heard, you're supposed to have a life, too. So I watched the first two hours.

Hunted so far alternates between furious action, slowly paced interludes and flashbacks that tend to get repetitive rather than instructive. Creator Frank Spotnitz, who's also the head executive producer, is accustomed to taking his time after spending a lot of time on The X-Files. He wrote 48 episodes of that series and also has delved into a number of other dark dramas, including Millennium and Harsh Realm.

Melissa George, a Golden Globe nominee for HBO's In Treatment, stars as the No. 1 field operative for a private intelligence and security firm known as Byzantium. After an opening nude scene in Tangier, she's targeted in a complex double-cross that leaves her seriously wounded before events move forward one year.

By this time, Sam is getting back up to speed via rigorous workouts and breathing exercises in a remote location. No one at Byzantium has had any idea of her whereabouts -- which is more than a bit of a stretch -- until Sam saunters back into headquarters in anticipation of resuming where she left off. She also plans to find out who set her up.

"Did you think about the chaos you've unleashed?" asks the icy Byzantium maestro (Stephen Dillane as Rupert Keel).

"Do I get my job back?" she asks in turn.

Well, yes, but she'll be on a short leash. And Sam also will be the point woman in an undercover operation aimed at infiltrating the home of up-to-no-good multi-millionaire Jack Turner (Patrick Malahide). He has a nefarious "game" in play, and an undisclosed secret Byzantium client is willing to pay lots of money to thwart him. One of Jack's associates is sinister Dr. Horst Goebel (Peter Vollebregt), whose specialty is plunging needles into eyeballs.

Hunted will spend its entire eight hours sorting all of this out, and ample patience will be required to reach that point. This is no walk in the park, and certainly not on the level of Gorky Park. Plus, some of the machinations that get Sam into the Turner estate -- as schoolteacher "Alex Kent" from Indiana -- are quite simply not to be fully believed.

While Sam searches for information on Jack Turner, his far more gentle-minded son Stephen (Stephen Campbell Moore) increasingly is taking a liking to her. She's the first person that Stephen's 10-year-old son, Eddie (Oscar Kennedy), has connected to since losing his mother. It also helps that Sam "rescued" the kid from a passel of Byzantium operatives playing fake kidnappers.

The team has now set up shop from afar, surveying goings-on in the Turner estate via hidden cameras cleverly arranged by Sam. When not sneaking around -- or engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat on a side trip -- she regularly flashes back to the day her mother was murdered at a gas station while eight-year-old Sam watched in horror. No wonder she still broods a lot, with actress George's pouty lips regularly called on to work overtime.

The script is meant to be taut, but at times can be hackneyed. As when veteran Byzantium agent Deacon Crane (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) informs newcomer Ian Fowkes (Lex Shrapnel), "Speculation leads to assumption. Assumption leads to mistakes and mistakes will get you killed. You understand?"

Cinemax, HBO's longtime sister network, is striving to make a mark with its own latter day wave of original series. Strike Back was the first and Banshee (from Six Feet Under/True Blood creator Alan Ball) is set for a January 2013 premiere.

Hunted may be too byzantine to gain traction on Friday nights, when many a tired, brain-weary viewer wants to relax rather than be overly taxed. The fight scenes are easily digested but those down times can really make your head hurt.


HBO's Ethel a loving, evocative tribute without warts and all

Youngest child Rory with her mom, Ethel Kennedy. HBO photo

Ethel is an old time-y name these days and HBO's Ethel is an old time-y documentary film.

Premiering Thursday, Oct. 18th at 8 p.m. (central), it's a highly varnished look at 84-year-old Ethel Kennedy through the eyes of her youngest of 11 children, Rory Kennedy.

She has been one of the world's most famous widows since her husband, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., was assassinated on the night of June 6, 1968 after winning the California presidential primary. Rory, who produced, narrated and directed the 1 hour, 40 minute film, arrived six months after her father's death. So her memories of him are solely via film, photos and recollections from her siblings and mother, who remains a reluctant, short-spoken but generally good-natured first-hand witness to it all.

"Why should I have to answer all these questions?" she amiably asks after Rory gets her to sit down in front of a camera.

Depicted as a fun-loving, very athletic and devoted wife/mother by virtually all who know her, Ethel is no magpie in her dotage. She is, however, an iconic figure who comes to life anew -- seemingly against her own wishes -- in a film that's rich in evocative pictures and the history behind them. Robert is still referred to as "daddy" and the kids all call Ethel either "mummy" or "mommy."

Born Ethel Skakel, she was the daughter of conservative Republicans who made themselves wealthy rather than being born to money. Her big batch of wild Irish Catholic brothers "made life really fun and interesting and a challenge. And they were plenty scary, too," Ethel recalls in one of her more expansive moments.

This is a film without any mentions of scandal. Nor is Ethel's relationship with Jacqueline Kennedy ever brought up. There are nine surviving children of Ethel and Robert Kennedy, with David dying in 1984 of a drug overdose and Michael killed in a 1997 skiing accident.

Both David and Michael are mentioned and pictured, with the causes of their deaths included. But 10th child Douglas Kennedy, born on March 4, 1967, might as well be dead for the purposes of this film. He's the only surviving sibling not interviewed. Nor is his existence acknowledged by name.

Perhaps he committed the ultimate Kennedy sin, becoming a Fox News Channel correspondent in 1996 and remaining with the network to this day. Or maybe it's at least in part because he remains charged with misdemeanor physical harassment and child endangerment in connection with a Jan. 7, 2012 altercation with two New York State nurses. Douglas supposedly tried to take his newborn son, Daniel, out of the maternity ward for fresh air when the two nurses tried to stop him. They claim he then physically assaulted them.

Fox News Channel president and founder Roger Ailes has publicly come to Douglas Kennedy's defense. Ethel simply leaves him entirely out of the picture. Make of this what you will.

Even with its air-brushing and reticent title subject, Ethel is a watchable, oft-affecting film. Its centerpiece is her first "extended interview" in more than two decades, according to HBO publicity materials. Some of Ethel's children, principally Bobby Jr., Kerry and first-born Kathleen, are more talkative and interesting than others.

Bobby affectionately recalls her as a "horrible cook" who once tried to fry something in Vaseline. Kathleen shows a brief letter that her grieving father wrote her just two days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

"It was like Daddy had lost both arms . . . It was six months of just -- blackness," Ethel tells Rory. But she never tried to talk her husband out of his grief. Ethel instead let it play out on his terms. And then, during his 1964 campaign for the U.S. Senate, "Mummy lifted daddy up" and was by his side throughout, Kathleen says.

Robert Kennedy's death, even more than 44 years later, remains a closed door in terms of Ethel sharing anything for public consumption.

"Then we lost Daddy," Rory says.

Ethel pauses before replying, "We'll talk about something else."

It's hard to know whether she actually appreciates these efforts to bring her life, times and accomplishments into the spotlight after so many years in eclipse. Rory makes a game try near film's end after Ethel says of her children (save for Douglas), "It really is a great tribute to Daddy that you've all done so many wonderful things."

"Well, how about to you?" Rory asks.

"Nah. I think it was the other gene."

"You raised us, Mummy."

"I just don't feel I can take the credit. I just don't feel it."

Ethel Skakel Kennedy once crashed a gift motor scooter in Rome after impulsively riding off on it. She regularly got speeding tickets from the local cops and used to playfully baptize Kennedy administration cabinet members by pushing them into the pool during the frequent parties she threw.

The closest that present-day Ethel comes to those days is her fleeting audio imitation of the seal she took in as one of innumerable Kennedy family pets.

Ethel otherwise is very much a Seal of Approval look at the last adult Kennedy from the full-blown "Camelot" era. It resonates nonetheless, but not in the manner of a great documentary film.


FX's American Horror Story: Asylum is no more than scary bad

Jessica Lange returns to AHS franchise as super-twisted Sister Jude. FX photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 17th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Jessica Lange, Evan Peters, Zachary Quinto, James Cromwell, Sarah Paulson, Joseph Fiennes, Chloe Sevingy, Clea Duvall, Lily Rabe, Adam Levine, Lizzie Brochere
Produced by: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Dante Di Loreto, Tim Minear

Depravity, thy newest name is American Horror Story: Asylum.

And this time there are no saving graces.

Season 1 of AHS at least had a thin veneer of reality and one or two moral compasses at work amid its excesses and brutality. It also had the steadying hand of Connie Britton.

Judging from the first two very off-putting episodes available for review, Asylum looks like all excess all the time. As they did with the once borderline great series Nip/Tuck, co-creators/executive producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have proved incapable of resisting their worst impulses. Nip/Tuck deteriorated into a gratuitous, absurd mess. Asylum goes several steps beyond in its seeming determination to be nothing more than a very sick and twisted gore-fest laying waste to one of the easier punching bags on earth -- the Catholic Church.

FX, home network to deservedly praised series ranging from Justified to Louie, continues to pride itself on taking risks and kicking ass. Asylum looks to be a very bad misstep into little more than sticky, smelly dung. The best thing about it, as with the first AHS, is the decidedly unique opening credits sequence, a collection of disturbing images and Radiohead-esque sound spurts. After that -- ugh.

Jessica Lange, who won an Emmy as warped Constance in the first AHS, returns as the new character Sister Jude, a Satanic nun running a home for the insane called Briarcliff Manor. Asylum is mostly set in 1964, which might as well be the Dark Ages in terms of the brutalization endorsed within these walls.

Inmates include a (wrongly?) accused serial killer known as "Bloody Face" (returnee Evan Peters in a different role) and murderous sex addict Shelley (Chloe Sevigny from Big Love). In next week's Episode 2, Shelley gets to say, "Hey, Sister, I have a cucumber in my room. Not because I was hungry." Hey, kids, never mind her. Keep eating your vegetables.

Shelley doesn't get her mouth washed out with lye, probably only because Sister Jude herself fantasizes stripping down to a slinky red nightie for the pleasure of a seemingly hands-on monsignor played by Joseph Fiennes. He hired her to run this place, and hopes to someday go all the way with her (to Rome, etc).

Asylum's first two hours also provide a sequence in which the thoroughly sadistic Briarcliff doctor, Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), has a paid escort over to his house for dinner and other pleasures. She won't drink his top shelf cabernet but will get into a nun's outfit for him. Then comes a line that may well live in screenplay infamy but also belongs in a parody: "Now. Slowly." says Dr. Arden. "Show me your mossy bank."

Wednesday's premiere hour also begins with a sex-capade, but set in the present day. Leo (Adam Levine) and his new bride are determined to give their mossy banks a workout in America's 12 most haunted houses. Unfortunately they've chosen Briarcliff as one of them, meaning that Levine (the Maroon 5 frontman and judge on NBC's The Voice) seemingly will spend most of Asylum in a bad state of disrepair during recurring flash forwards.

Producers Murphy and Falchuk also have included lesbian reporter Lana "Banana" Winters (Sarah Paulson), who preposterously finds a way to sneak into Briarcliff in search of an expose. Let's just say this doesn't quite work as planned.

Through it all, Lange's Sister Jude sneers and hisses at a variety of patients and co-workers. Once upon a time she was the young actress who fetchingly screamed from King Kong's palm. Now Lange is all Sturm und Drang -- and happy witness to electro-shock therapy treatments and exorcisms among other horror shows.

"Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin," she declares.

Asylum, which throws in a few bare bottoms and "a dirty little slut with a poisonous tongue" exchange for good measure, is neither for the faint of heart nor the stout of mind. Some of its imagery is arresting. But this is mostly a sorry, unfortunate and even contemptuous enterprise.

The first AHS rose above some of its twisted storytelling. Asylum simply keeps sinking -- from one depth to another.


Prescribing Mamie Gummer -- in Emily Owens, M.D.

So far they're still just friends in Emily Owens, M.D. CW photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Oct. 16th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Mamie Gummer, Justin Hartley, Michael Rady, Aja Naomi King, Kelly McCreary, Necar Zadegan
Produced by: Jennie Snyder, Dan Jinks

OK, let's address this right up top.

Mamie Gummer, now 29, is looking more and more like her mother, Meryl Streep. The resemblance is striking during some scenes in the first two episodes of The CW's Emily Owens, M.D.. Much more so than when Gummer had a decidedly lesser role as a doctor in the short-lived 2011 ABC series Off the Map.

This time she's full-out center stage, fronting virtually every scene as the title character in a doc drama paired compatibly with CW's likewise medically inclined Hart of Dixie. Whatever the long-term prognosis for Emily Owens, it may well be remembered as Gummer's launch pad. She succeeds admirably in the role of an intern who yearns to distance herself from those esteem-sapping, thoroughly "geeky" high school years.

"So yeah," Emily says in an opening narrative. "I'm still kind of waiting for that confident, kick-ass thing to happen."

Her new proving ground, Denver Memorial hospital, at first seems like high school all over again. Emily's old nemesis, name-calling Cassandra Kopelson (Aja Naomi King), also just happens to be an intern. And she still taunts Emily as "Pits," a reference to her sometimes sweat-seeping underarms.

There's also bespectacled Will Collins (Justin Hartley), who easily could have been the star of Smallville had it started a half-dozen or so seasons later. Will and Emily were confidants and best pals in med school, but he doesn't like her the way she likes him. Meanwhile, intern Michael Barnes (Michael Rady) does seem to like Emily in ways that she doesn't like him.

Another member of the intern ensemble, Tyra Dupre (Kelly McCreary), is in search of a girlfriend. She's informed Emily of this pursuit, but hasn't yet told her stern father (who's also Memorial's chief resident) about her sexual orientation.

All of the interns are bossed around by imperious attending physician Gina Bandari (Necar Zadegan), who of course insists on an impersonal demeanor in the face of heart-rendering patient illnesses and setbacks. So the overall dynamics of Emily Owens are about as familiar as "Take two aspirin and call me in the morning." It's Gummer who rises above them, particularly in Episode 2.

Emily is constantly in motion and on-camera, whether shouldering a rather preposterous load of cases -- for a spanking new intern at least -- or striving to overcome awkward relationships with a growing number of Memorial staffers. But Gummer's a gamer, investing her lead character with smarts, compassion and no small amount of discombobulation. She injects the ordinary with her own unique prescription brand pick-me-ups, making Emily Owens bearable when it's not fully embraceable.

It's not easy being the daughter of such an esteemed actress, particularly when the resemblance is there, too. But Michael Douglas has managed quite well under such circumstances. So if this is the second coming of Meryl Streep, then Emily Owens, M.D. might well be remembered as the first big coming out party for Mamie Gummer's obvious talents. Onward and upward.

GRADE: B-minus

AMC's The Walking Dead: more Sundays bloody Sundays

Survivors are always up against it in The Walking Dead. AMC photo

Gore galore! (And it has nothing to do with Al.)

The most unrelentingly gruesome series in the history of advertiser-supported television returns Sunday (Oct. 14th at 8 p.m. central) with new vistas in violence.

The Walking Dead, revving up Season 3 in two eight-episode installments, also draws roughly double the audience for AMC's two other main events, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Its small band of principal human survivors is way too gassed to have sex at this point. But they still have enough stamina to pull triggers, wield spears, fire arrows and anything else it takes to dispatch legions of staggering, hunger-ravaged zombies.

Nary a breast is bared, because most advertisers would still balk at that. But it's A-OK to show whatever savage brutality it takes to keep group leader Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) from becoming zombies themselves. No wonder it's a big hit, particularly among advertiser-craved younger viewers.

Walking Dead also remains a high-quality show amidst its depths of depravity. Its eagerly awaited third season will be sliced into two parts, replicating AMC's handling of Breaking Bad's fifth and final season. The first eight hours will be followed by a winter break before the second eight are rolled out sometime in early spring, according to the network's current plans.

The Season 2 finale of Walking Dead aired on March 18th of this year, with Grimes declaring, "This isn't a democracy anymore" shortly before viewers caught a closing glimpse of a nearby penitentiary. Sunday's season opener begins with the discovery of that prison, which Grimes sees as "perfect" in terms of a safe haven. So to attain freedom from the hordes of zombies, the remaining human survivors in effect have to put themselves behind bars. Oh the irony.

We're not going to give away much more, save to say that nothing is ever as easy it as it seems. And by the end of the first two hours made available for preview, Grimes is breaking pretty bad himself in terms of doing what a man's gotta do.

Among the the other principal characters, Grimes' estranged wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), grows closer to delivering a baby whose father remains unknown. And their pre-teen son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), is closer to becoming a matter-of-fact hardened killer. Constant imperilment can do that to a boy.

Several new characters are introduced while a well-known member of the returning cast is in for some major pain that . . . well, never mind.

Walking Dead continues to sorely test both the humanity of the survivors and their overall wills to live. Particularly now that everyone knows -- courtesy of the Season 2 ender -- they'll be re-animated as "Walkers" no matter how they die.

This is way too well-made a series to be dubbed a "guilty pleasure," even if a sizable percentage of the audience may watch purely for the visceral thrills of all that weekly bloodletting. AMC doesn't particularly care why anyone is a fan. And in truth, the profits being made from Walking Dead may in some ways have served to underwrite extra episodes and longer lives for both Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

In that context, keep those zombies coming. Never have so many re-died at the hands of a bare handful of ground level troops. And without apparently smelling too bad either.

GRADE: B-plus

Biden's interruptive merriment the take away talking point of veep debate

Joe Biden offered many, many, many, many laughs at Paul Ryan's expense during Thursday night's veep candidate debate in Kentucky. Photo: Ed Bark

Oftentimes over-compensating for the boss man's self-acknowledged "bad night" last week, Vice President Joe Biden made his mere omni-presence the singular issue of Thursday night's veep candidate debate with comparative kiddo Paul Ryan.

Smokin' Joe grinned, chortled, interrupted at will and generally came off as one of those loud, know-it-all uncles with a few belts under his belt. Ryan was a gamely smiling in-law enduring the annual Christmas get-together.

Viewers watching via split-screen --- with CNN again presenting the entire debate this way -- got the full force of Biden's mega-Red Bull approach. Stylistically it soon wore thin. But the vice president's passion at least was in play. As live wires go, this guy was 5,000 volts worth. President Obama, in contrast, had a power failure.

Democrats loved the the No. 2 man's take-no-prisoners approach while Republicans branded him an ill-mannered boor. No surprise there. But what of the ever-worshipped "undecided" voters? Will Biden's lack of standard issue debate decorum matter to them? For someone who still champions "working across the aisle," he perhaps came off as the kind of guy who'd even pick a fight about walking his daughter down the aisle.

Ryan wasn't always a punching bag. And in fact he may have scored his biggest points by interrupting one of Biden's multi-interruptions to tell the veep that viewers would be better served if they'd stop interrupting each other. Biden clearly was the Interrupter-in-Chief. But it sure was good political "theater" -- until it deteriorated into Crossfire for a while.

Both Biden and Ryan may have partially cleansed the palate in the closing 15 minutes with their serious, interrupted discourses on how their positions on abortion squared with their Catholicism. They have distinctly different viewers, of course -- and this time they actually aired them out. Even Biden knew it would be unseemly to chortle through his opponent's answer. Abortion is no laughing matter, although just about everything else was.

Maybe it's just the arrogance of power. People who have it quickly grow contemptuous of upstarts who would dare to take it away from them. President George H.W. Bush disdainfully looked at his watch during a 1992 "town hall meeting" encounter with challengers Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Al Gore, the sitting vice president at the time, sighed his way through the first 2000 debate with George W. And now the Biden laugh, which repeatedly signaled his basic contempt for a punk like Ryan. "Hey, kid, go wash my vice presidential limousine for me and put a coat of wax on it while you're at it."

Moderator Martha Raddatz, a whiz on foreign affairs, had sharper follow-ups than her predecessor, Jim Lehrer. But she also found it difficult to control the combatants, even though she sat within almost arm's length of them at a table rather then presiding from afar while President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney stood at podiums.

Then again, a moderator shouldn't overly separate the combatants. Biden could hardly be told to stop laughing or he'd be put in "Time out." The candidates' respective behaviors and appearances also are key to these things. Often more so than what they actually say. It goes all the way back to a pale-faced Richard Nixon sweating his way through a perceived loss to tanned, rested and ready John F. Kennedy in their landmark first 1960 debate. Kennedy looked notably toned even in black-and-white.

Ryan hardly had the presence or charisma of JFK, whose name once again came up courtesy of a Biden jab. But the challenger might have come off as more "vice presidential" than the vice president himself. Laughter may be the best medicine, but it's still possible to over-dose.

In the end, CNN's on-screen time clocks said that Biden spoke for a total of 41 minutes, 32 seconds while Ryan wasn't far behind at 40:12. But their respective reactions to one another are turning into the debate's biggest story. And Saturday Night Live almost certainly will build this weekend's debate sendup around Biden's constant merriment. I can see the script now:

Ryan: "And after my bout with colon cancer, I learned that my sister had leukemia . . . "

Biden: (Uproarious laughter).

Ryan: "But we're both fighters. We get that from our dad, who lost a leg to mortar fire during the Vietnam War, but . . ."

Biden: (Uproarious laughter) Followed by, "You guys would all be without medical care under the Republican plan to . . ."

And so on.

Key and Peele presents the East/West Collegiate Bowl

Comedy Central's Key and Peele is one funny mother effing show. But this preview of the East/West Collegiate Bowl takes it to classic status.

Let's meet the players, including Penn State's Hingle McCringleberry, after a brief opening commercial that you'll be glad you sat through.
Ed Bark

Come again? This time it's The CW's turn with Beauty and the Beast

Jay Ryan and Kristin Kreuk play a scarred beast and a scared "Cat." CW photo

Premiering: Thursday, Oct. 11th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Kristin Kreuk, Jay Ryan, Nina Lisandrello, Max Brown, Austin Basis, Brian White
Produced by: Sherri Cooper, Jennifer Levin, Brian Peterson, Kelly Souders, Gary Fleder, Bill Haber, Paul J. Witt, Tony Thomas, Ron Koslow, Frank Siracusa, John Weber

Time flies when you're taking another stab at an apparently timeless franchise.

Can it really have been 25 TV seasons since CBS premiered its version of Beauty and the Beast and 21 years since the release of Disney's animated, Oscar-nominated musical version?

ABC ordered a Beauty and the Beast pilot for this season, but passed on what it called a "fantastical re-imagining of the classic fairy tale set in a mythical, dangerous world wherein a beautiful and tough princess discovers an unlikely connection with a mysterious beast." Given the long-winded description, it was probably just as well.

But The CW, already home to Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries and two action hero hours (Nikita and the new Arrow), is plunging ahead with its version of Beauty and the Beast. Absent a singing teapot, it's instead a semi-facsimile of the CBS series, which starred Ron Perlman (now growling on FX's Sons of Anarchy) as the "Tunnel World"-dwelling Vincent the Beast and Linda Hamilton as assistant D.A. Catherine Chandler.

CW uses the same names, although Vincent (Jay Ryan) now has a surname (Keller) and Catherine (Kristin Kreuk) is a detective better known as "Cat."

New York City is still their dangerous playground, but the new Vincent lives in an abandoned warehouse with his protective childhood friend, J.T. Forbes (Austin Basis). The old Beast nursed Catherine back to health after she was attacked and left to die in Central Park. New Beast can't save Cat's mother from armed attackers but does prevent them from killing her. Years then pass, with Cat transforming from bartender to detective while still wondering who saved her on that fateful night.

Kreuk is accustomed to the company of otherworldly super-powered hunks after a long run as Lana Lang on CW's Smallville. The Beast likewise is a well-muscled, good-looking dude, albeit with a jagged scar bisecting the right side of his face. It's the product of a 2002 tour in Afghanistan after his brother died on 9/11. But sinister military forces of some sort transformed Vincent and others into something they weren't -- monstrous killing machines in need of eradication.

"They couldn't stop us, we couldn't stop us," he explains. So it seemed like a good idea to go undercover after being presumed dead.

Things get even loopier during a companion search for the killer of a newly promoted fashion magazine editor. Vincent just happened to be on the scene, and left his "cross-species DNA" behind. Cat and her partner, detective Tess Vargas (Nina Lisandrello), are assigned to the case. But the latter is left in the dark while Cat eventually tracks Vincent to his lair and then gets stuck with the line, "We're not done here."

The Beast keeps trying to warn Cat off and even Hulks out in hopes of scaring her off. But he's unable to stop saving her, even though Cat proves to be Nikita-esque in initially beating the hell out of two subway thugs.

Caught somewhere in the middle is medical examiner Evan Marks (Max Brown). He's a jaunty Brit with eyes for Cat after her previous boyfriend cheated on her and prompted Tess to declare, "You have a blind spot for douches."

Well, the Beast is no douche, although he can be high maintenance. So off we go toward more weekly bouts with forbidden love and unsolved crimes. Beauty and the Beast won't hurt all that much to watch, but the dialogue and plot stretches can add up to a lot of little ows. That's pretty much standard operating procedure on the terminally struggling CW, which someday will probably just go away.


NBC's Chicago Fire not yet burning brightly but rises above flame-out

Taylor Kinney is suitably hunky & troubled in Chicago Fire. NBC photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 10th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Taylor Kinney, Jesse Spencer, Teri Reeves, Monica Raymund, Lauren German, Eamonn Walker, Charlie Barnett, David Eigenberg
Produced by: Dick Wolf, Derek Haas, Michael Brandt, Peter Jankowski, Danielle Gelber

This is one in a very occasional series of "for what it is" reviews.

NBC's Chicago Fire is unlikely to make anyone's list of the fall season's best new series. But for what it is -- another weekly look at flame-fighters and companion paramedics -- it's not half bad. Not A-OK or even B-OK. But B-minus OK seems about right. Give or take a C+

The principal producer is Dick Wolf, architect of a Law & Order franchise that now is in its last gasp with NBC's 14-season old Law & Order: SVU. This is his first hook 'n' ladder series, with more continuing story lines than Wolf has ever put into play.

His long-standing mantra has been to self-contain each episode while leaving the regular characters' private lives seldom seen or heard. That way viewers could miss a few episodes without feeling they'd really missed anything at all.

Chicago Fire, launching Wednesday, dares to include an off-again, on-again relationship between firefighter Matthew Casey (Jesse Spencer) and a medical resident named Hallie (Teri Reeves). Meanwhile, tormented hose-wielder Kelly Severide (Taylor Kinney) is injecting something into his upper arm from week to week with help from lesbian paramedic Leslie Shay (Lauren German), who keeps vowing to stop supplying him.

Kinney played a San Francisco paramedic in the 2009-'10 NBC series Trauma. So he's used to answering alarms, springing into action and then getting introspective. In Episode 1 of Chicago Fire, he's primarily resentful of Casey, blaming him in part for the burning building death of a close friend named Andy Darden. He's so resentful, in fact, that a month later he still won't touch the tasty corned beef that Casey has carefully prepared for Firehouse 51's nightly group dinner.

Other weekly characters include firm but fair battalion chief Wallace Boden (Eamonn Walker); veteran fireman Christopher Herrmann (David Eisenberg); rookie firefighter Peter Mills (Charlie Barnett) and paramedic Gabriella Dawson (Monica Raymund), who retains a case of the slow, simmering hots for Casey. There's a bit of irreverence to be had, but nothing in the vicinity of FX's Rescue Me. (Which in truth could be more than a little excessive.)

The premiere episode has more than one telegraphed punch and plenty of pounding drum music as trucks roar to the scenes of fires and other rescue opportunities. But next week's hour, subtitled "Mon Amour," is better rendered and includes a genuinely affecting closer between Severide and a grateful survivor.

Severide and Casey both manage to take their shirts off in the line of duty -- or not. Both show they're ready-made for Starz's Spartacus. Just about every regular character is stunningly handsome or beautiful, save for a somewhat dumpy firefighter dubbed "Otis" (Yuri Sardarov). He's mostly used for comic relief, but could easily be burned to a crisp at some point.

The cast seems capable enough, and Chicago Fire's action scenes are both plentiful and well-produced. Add a cameo from Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel in Wednesday's premiere, even though he gets no audible speaking lines.

Scheduled directly opposite ABC's Nashville, fall's best new series, this seems like a serviceable drama that merits a bit better ladder grade (heh-heh) for an improved second hour. So onward and upward perhaps, with Chicago Fire at least potentially rising to the level of some of its weekly rescue climbs.

GRADE: B-minus

Singing its praises: ABC's Nashville is fall's best newcomer

Arch foes Hayden Panettiere & Connie Britton sit pretty in Nashville. ABC photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 10th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere, Charles Esten, Eric Close, Clare Bowen, Jonathan Jackson, Powers Boothe, Sam Palladio, Robert Ray Wisdom.
Produced by: R.J. Cutler, Callie Khouri, Steve Buchanan, T Bone Burnett

Country-fried but never half-baked, ABC's Nashville is much more than a melodrama in tune with "Music City."

It has Emmy caliber performances from its two leads and an authenticity that won't quit. Singing its praises is a no-brainer from the moment Connie Britton takes the stage to sing for real at the Grand Ol' Opry. And this goes down in the opening minutes.

Arriving Wednesday in a 9 p.m. (central) slot opposite CBS' long-entrenched CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and NBC's new Chicago Fire, this is the class of the fall season's freshmen. All the soap opera elements are in place. But while Dallas is a full-blown sudser, this is a bracing mineral bath. Drama queens? Yes. Over-the-top caricature-izations? No, although Powers Boothe comes pretty close at times as a coiled cobra of a daddy.

Britton, brilliant in NBC's Friday Night Lights and victimized in the first season of FX's American Horror Story, plays iconic country singer Rayna Jaymes. Her record sales are down and her label is demanding a big concession after 21 years of chart-topping. How about if she cancels her upcoming tour and instead serves as an opening act for country music's hottest new sensation, willful, spoiled, busty Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere from NBC's Heroes)? Well, that doesn't sit too well.

"Why do people listen to that adolescent crap? It sounds like feral cats to me," Rayna grouses. Still, she's got a big decision to make.

Nashville's young-older country diva showdown is reminiscent of the 2010 feature film Country Strong, which starred Gwyneth Paltrow and Leighton Meester. But Britton's Rayna is by no means broken down or fresh out of rehab. She remains the bread-winning, full-voiced, steady-headed mother of two daughters and wife of struggling businessman Teddy Conrad (Eric Close).

Their marriage is less than a love match. That's because Rayna and her longtime band leader, Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten), were -- as a country song title might put it -- "Meant For Each Other, But It Wasn't To Be." And now Juliette is hustling him with promises of a doubled salary and other side benefits.

Boothe, recently seen in the History channel's Hatfields & McCoys, plays super-powerful Nashville businessman Lamar Wyatt. Rayna's sister, Tandy (guest star Judith Hoag), has cuddled up to daddy and his money. But Rayna wants no part of him 'cause he's hurt her too many times. "It's a funny thing about, daddy, you know," she tells Tandy. "He's always there when he needs ya."

For that matter, Juliette has a broken-down mama who's always asking for money to fuel her drug habit. So maybe they can bond at some point on parental malfeasance.

Nashville's creator and principal script writer is Callie Khouri, a San Antonio native and Oscar-winner for her Thelma & Louise screenplay. Co-executive producer R.J. Cutler is best known for his previous unscripted productions, among them The War Room and American High. But the series would be nothing without its music. And the legendary T Bone Burnett presides -- as "executive music producer" -- over what must be the best collection of original tunes ever written for an American TV series pilot.

They include the instantly transfixing "If I Didn't Know Better," performed at Nashville's Bluebird Cafe by Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio in the roles of untapped singer/songwriters Scarlett O'Connor and Gunnar Scott.

ABC already is in tune with Fox's Glee on this front, releasing original songs from Nashville on a weekly basis via iTunes and the network's "Music Lounge" website.

All of the actors perform their own songs, and you won't be cringing. But Britton's Rayna will, particularly when her two young daughters sing along to a Juliette hit while she's driving them home from school. They whine when she abruptly turns the radio off. "Momma's got a headache" is her pitch-perfect explanation.

Britton dominates Wednesday's premiere episode, but Panettiere gets just enough time to establish herself as a sex kitten/songstress to be reckoned with. Besides the music, the show-stopper is an extended scene between Rayna and bandleader Deacon, during which their feelings for one another are subtly but strongly felt.

In an ideal world, Nashville is just too good to fail and will draw a big audience for its unfurling. In the real world, one never knows. But ABC has put its very best foot forward with this one -- and with toes tapping, too. Failure would be a very dreary and depressing country song. Something on the order of, "We Put Out the Cream, But You Still Wanted Crap."


CW's Arrow has a little something in its quiver

The star of Arrow wants bad guys to get the point. CW photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 10th at 7 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Stephen Amell, Katie Cassidy, Colin Donnell, David Ramsey, Willa Holland, Susanna Thompson, Paul Blackthorne
Produced by: Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, Andrew Kreisberg

Prime-time's newest action hero has a long to-do list of ne'er-do-wells.

And he's making up for lost time after a five-year survivor stint on a far-off North China island in which he learned "to forge myself into a weapon." Zing go the stings of his pointy things when the hooded right-wronger isn't parkour-ing through Starling City in hot pursuit of those who would do him harm. A really tough workout routine further steels him.

He is -- drum roll/cymbal clash -- the most interesting Arrow in the world when not masquerading as playboy billionaire Oliver Queen. And he's kind of fun to watch in Wednesday night's scene-setter.

The CW's Arrow, starring a nicely sculpted, scarred and tattooed Stephen Amell, is being paired with the network's long-running Supernatural. Both series tend to spend a lot of time in the dark during filming in cost-efficient Vancouver. So cross-over episodes are always a possibililty.

Oliver is quickly rescued from his island hell-hole in the opening minutes of Arrow. He had been on a small storm-tossed boat with a handful of passengers, including his tycoon father (Jamey Sheridan dropping in from vice presidential duties on Homeland) and the sister of Dinah "Laurel" Lance (Katie Cassidy), on whom he'd been cheating. They're both dead now, but flashbacks show us that dad let Oliver in on some dark secrets before expiring.

The return to Starling City is heralded by TV news accounts spiked with footage of a drunken Oliver's dust-up with a photographer. But he's a heroic figure now -- outwardly at least -- to everyone except embittered Laurel, a crusading attorney who specializes in helping the powerless.

Oliver's old room at the stately Queen mansion has been left as is by his mother Moira (Susanna Thompson), who's remarried. His wingman, Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell), also hasn't missed a beat. One of the premiere episode's better moments is when Tommy tries to hand-pick a bedmate for Oliver at a big, loud club party.

"Which one is she?" Oliver says while surveying three gyrators.

"The one that looks like the chick from Twilight," Tommy says.

"What's Twilight?"

"You're so better off not knowing."

Arrow otherwise is enlivened by a pair of very frenetic action sequences featuring tumbles, dodges, flying fists and a number of points well made by Arrow's bow and arrows. Medieval weaponry is at least a minor trend this fall, with NBC's new Revolution specializing in weekly sword fights.

The first episode of Arrow is promising enough to merit a call-back next week. Even if the series more likely than not will settle into an oft-trod TV regimen of dispatching a bad guy per week while peeling away more layers of "mythology" regarding the Queen family's previous bad deeds.

In that respect, Episode 1 ends with a mini-revelation that in reality isn't all that big a surprise. Arrow may not be a-point-ment television. But for starters at least, it's a sharper little tale than expected.

GRADE: B-minus

Lifetime's Steel Magnolias is both distinctly different, faithful to original

Condola Rashad & Queen Latifah of Steel Magnolias. Lifetime photo

Anything of any import will be remade at some point.

In fact, CBS got to Steel Magnolias first, trying to springboard off the 1989 star-drenched feature film with a would-be 1990 TV series starring Cindy Williams, Sally Kirkland, Polly Bergen, Elaine Stritch and Sheila McCarthy. It wasn't picked up, but the pilot aired during the summer of that year.

Lifetime is on much firmer ground with its affecting and amusing re-do, which premieres on Sunday, Oct. 7th at 8 p.m. (central). The gimmick, if you can call it that, finds an all-black cast stepping into the small town Louisiana roles played a generation ago by the likes of Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah, Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard and Dylan McDermott.

This film can't match that wattage. Still, the new Steel Magnolias is well-fortified with accomplished actresses such as Queen Latifah, Alfre Woodard and Phylicia Rashad. The latter's daughter, Condola Rashad, follows in the Oscar-nominated footsteps of Julia Roberts with an Emmy caliber performance as newlywed Shelby. It's a pivotal role, and she nails it.

Steel Magnolia's story line is well-known to many. But not to the point where we're going to ruin it for those without a clue. Then as now, a good deal of the dialogue and character interaction takes place in Truvy's Beauty Salon, with Jill Scott succeeding Parton as its proprietor.

Shelby, a diabetic with a chronic kidney condition, is the only daughter of M'Lynn (Queen Latifah/Field). Magnolias begins on the eve of her marriage to Jackson (Tory Kittles/McDermott), a sensitive lawyer who remains steadfastly in love with headstrong Shelby after learning that having any children might well be dangerous to her well-being.

M'Lynn spends a good deal of time getting dolled up at Truvy's, where their other two close friends, cranky "Ouiser" (Woodard/MacLaine) and the recently widowed Clairee (Phylicia Rashad), likewise are very regular customers. Young Annelle (Adepero Oduye/Hannah), newly hired by Truvy, also becomes part of their mix.

Woodard's Ouiser -- "I'm not crazy. I've been in a bad mood for 40 years" -- is serviceable in the role but no match for MacLaine's oft-hysterical grousing. But Queen Latifah, Scott and particularly Condola Rashad are more than equal to the roles they've inherited from Field, Parton and Roberts.

Kenny Leon, director of ABC's terrific 2008 remake of Raisin in the Sun, is back in that capacity for Magnolias. And executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have a long list of worthy feature films and made-for-TV movies on their resumes, including Hairspray, Chicago, Raisin in the Sun and Gypsy.

Lifetime still targets women viewers, but males won't be immune to handkerchiefs as this remake hits its stride. Not many tearjerkers can hold a candle to Magnolias, which also has an abundance of feel-good moments. References to Beyonce and Michelle Obama are worked in without reaching too hard. And the "black experience," although hardly monolithic, resonates in ways that make this version quite special and different.

Some of the supporting characters aren't fleshed out as well as they might be. The original Magnolias had a running time of almost two hours while Lifetime's version is just 90 minutes interrupted by a half-hour of commercial breaks.

Queen Latifah carries much of the load down the homestretch -- and she likely has never been better. It all makes for a Lifetime movie of distinction in times when ABC, CBS and NBC have all but abandoned this once thriving genre.

Not that long ago, this would have been a heavily promoted ratings sweeps attraction on "free" TV. Viewers now have to pay for such fare via monthly cable or satellite bills. And in this case, your money is well-spent.

GRADE: A-minus

Debate No. 1: Romney puts on a show; Obama shows he's not invincible

In the end, President Obama had significantly more speaking time than Mitt Romney, but didn't make his words count as much during Wednesday's first of three debates between the two. Photo: Ed Bark

President Obama never raised the 47 percent specter and at times seemed to be operating at 47 percent efficiency.

Mitt Romney pushed the action, looked more presidential and even skirted with being dynamic.

Perhaps this was no knockout. But at the end of this one, Obama's cut man would have been trying to close a big gash over his eye while in Romney's corner they worked to reduce the swelling from a few welts.

Wednesday night's nationally televised first of three debates between them proved one overriding point: these things can matter. And a Romney campaign in dire need of boost is now riding high for at least a few days on continuous 5 hour energy drinks.

I tweeted throughout on Romney's surprising ability to get in Obama's grill and press his conservative agenda in forceful, concise language. The President regularly spoke in halting patterns, using the word "uh" at a world record pace. He just wasn't clicking, looking smallish and at times a "little listless" (as CNN's Candy Crowley noted) during what developed into a long night for him on his 20th wedding anniversary no less.

Obama acknowledged this milestone occasion from the podium, calling his wife Michelle "sweetie." But Romney even trumped him here, joking to good effect, "I'm sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine -- here with me."

CNN's debate coverage used a split screen throughout while also coming up with the novel idea of speaking time clocks. The president can't claim he was cheated, even though some of his supporters later said that moderator Jim Lehrer had been "dominated" by Romney's insistence on rebutting some of Obama's claims.

But the president also rather churlishly scolded Lehrer for supposedly interrupting him. And he ended up with 4 minutes and 18 seconds more speaking time than the challenger, according to CNN's clock. The final sum totals were 42:50 for Obama and 38:32 for Romney.

Not that the president used his extra words well. In fact he had too many of them, rambling at times and peppering those rambles with pauses and "uhs." His verbiage didn't cut through the way Romney's did. In a televised political debate, projection and easily grasped explanations count for a lot. Romney simply made his words hit home more -- and in significantly less time.

Moderator Lehrer is being ripped by some for being a laissez faire moderator who let both candidates get away with too much cross-talk while not rebutting them with his own sharp questions. He could have been a bit tougher, but debates are supposed to be give-and-take rather than canned excerpts from the candidates' stump speeches. Lehrer tried to keep them within their allotted time limits, although not to the point of squelching rebuttals. He's an old hand at this -- maybe too old a hand. But he's no replacement ref, and there was no need for him to continually throw flags. Which he didn't.

MSNBC's ever-windy and self-congratulatory Chris Matthews later criticized Obama's debate performance, which is stunning in itself. He also strongly implied that he would have done a far better job than Lehrer, and that today's audiences expect a moderator to forcefully interject and demand answers to previous questions. That's why Matthews will never be asked. No. 1, he's too partisan. Secondly, he'd turn any debate into his show.

The "takeaway" from Wednesday's encounter is that Romney has new life and that Obama will have to be considerably more aggressive in their second debate. No one who watched their first war of words can objectively say that the president came away with his arms raised in victory. Except for MSNBC's Al Sharpton, of course. But that's a given.

Oscar throws a curve, naming Seth MacFarlane as latest host

Oscar organizers returned to a headlong pursuit of younger viewers Monday by naming Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane to host the 85th annual ceremony.

It's a U-turn from last year's deployment of Billy Crystal, who had been hired as a more traditional alternative to 2011's rather unfortunate "young Hollywood" coupling of Anne Hathaway and a seemingly disinterested James Franco.

MacFarlane, who earlier this month hosted the 38th season premiere of Saturday Night Live, also showed up as a presenter on the Sept. 23rd Emmy awards.

"His performing skills blend perfectly with our ideas for making the show entertaining and fresh," Oscar producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron said of MacFarlane in a publicity release. "He will be the consummate host, and we are so happy to be working with him."

MacFarlane, who also made his feature film directorial debut this summer with the box office hit Ted, said it's an "overwhelming privilege" to host the Oscars, scheduled for Feb. 24th on ABC. "My thoughts about hearing the news were, one, I will do my utmost to live up to the high standards set forth by my predecessors; and, two, I hope they don't find out I hosted the Charlie Sheen roast."

Besides the notably irreverent Family Guy (which has lampooned innumerable Hollywood stars), MacFarlane also is executive producer of The Cleveland Show and American Dad! for Fox's "Animation Domination" Sunday night lineup. And like Crystal, he also enjoys breaking into song.

MacFarlane's first album, "Music Is Better than Words," received two Grammy nominations.